How technology is — and isn't — affecting your child's mental health

September 14, 2020

What do we know about the impact of digital technology on the mental health of our children? And how has the global pandemic intensified those effects? A new report identifies the key findings from a growing body of research, points to children most at risk, and outlines what parents can do to help.

The study Tweens, Teens, Tech & Mental Health, prepared by a consortium of leading child advocates on behalf of Common Sense Media, found that teen girls and young people of color were the most vulnerable for mental health issues.

But it concluded that it was unclear if heavy social media use was a cause or a symptom - or both.

The study also found that offline risk was often a precursor to online risk. Not surprisingly, kids with existing mental health issues reported more negative online experiences, and problematic social media use, than their peers.

Yet there were some groups of marginalized kids - notably LGBTQ teens - who reported definite benefits from interacting with online communities.

A shifting conversation

Researchers found too that the restrictions on offline life imposed by the global pandemic have shifted the conversation about screen-time. The emphasis today is less on quantity than on quality, as device use has inevitably expanded to meet the basic academic and social needs of young people.shutterstock_709910503

“Can we ‘flip the script’ from counting hours of screen-time to distinguishing different types of online experiences?” asks contributing author Professor Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“For today’s parents, counting the hours of screen-time seems to miss the point. They need to prepare their children for a digital future, and they want their children to be digitally skilled and to make good judgments about what they do online.”

Yet the report also warned that “the interests of parents are directly at odds with the interests of the technology companies" and called for guidelines and regulations on design features like auto-shutterstock_618308657play, endless scrolling, notifications and recommendations.

“As Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, says, we’re all walking around with slot machines in our pockets. We don’t let our children into casinos; we should be just as wary of letting these casinos into our children’s hands.”

Recommendations for parents

  • Talk to adolescents about the places where they feel supported and safe online, and ask what draws them to particular platforms and sites.
  • Ask young people how the people they follow or interact with online the most make them feel.
  • Identify when social media or online exchanges are increasing stress or spilling over into offline problems with friends and family or at school.
  • When possible, reserve judgments about screen-time.
  • Pay close attention if your child is already struggling offline. Early adolescence is a time when signs of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, first begin to emerge. Offline risks and changes in behaviors often coincide or overlap with online risks.
  • Be prepared for younger adolescents to enter social media earlier than planned. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, parents may be faced with granting access to social media and, ideally, developing a family social media plan, sooner than anticipated. In this case, scaffolding, monitoring, and supporting social media engagement becomes even more important.
  • Ask what you are shutting out when you turn off your adolescent’s smartphone. This may be the right decision, but it is also important to consider whether your adolescent is using the device to cope with mental health problems by seeking out information, advice, or support as most adolescents report doing. And if so, find ways those tasks can be facilitated without the device.

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Topics: Digital Parenting, Social Media, Teens on social media

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